When it comes to pipe smoking, it’s best to keep it simple. The world is overly complicated as it is. We don’t need pipe smoking to join the fray. Think about the way grocery stores are stocked today compared to how people bought food decades ago. I can go to the milk aisle and find whole milk, reduced fat milk, no fat milk, almond milk, goat milk, soy milk, and God only knows what else. If my Grandpa were alive, he would be hard pressed to maneuver successfully around an American supermarket. All I need is a simple gallon of milk, full of fat and full of flavor. The same can be said for a host of other products offered to us by entrepreneurs and inventors trying to start something new or create something different. If something is to be new, it needs to be a better representation of an admired idea or product that has stood the test of time. New is not a worthy objective in and of itself.
During the first year of my PhD program, I had little money and wanted to cook most of my meals rather than spend money in restaurants. I went back to the things I enjoyed eating at home, recipes I grew up with at Grandma’s table. Not long after I started my first semester, I called Grandma to ask her how to cook a few of my favorite dishes from her kitchen. I loved Grandma’s sweet potato pudding. Sweet potatoes are a staple food group in rural Southern kitchens, and Grandma knew how to cook them extremely well. She happily gave me the recipe, and I remember being surprised at how simple it was to make. Like Grandma’s sweet potato pudding, most good things come from simple ingredients. When it comes to pipes and pipe tobacco, the items that include too many features or too many ingredients are almost always inferior, insignificant, and of poor overall quality.
With pipe tobacco especially, quality begins in the field. One of the many reasons the McClelland tobacco company is still viewed as the most important pipe tobacco manufacturer in American history stems from the importance that this particular blending house placed on the tobacco farmer and the tobacco field itself. To my understanding, McClelland wanted to know as much as possible about where marketed tobacco leaves came from, who grew them, the soil conditions of particular farms and fields, etc. McClelland understood, as any farmer does, that one cultivar of tobacco grown on one farm will almost never taste the same as a similar cultivar produced in a neighboring field. Soil conditions vary considerably from farm to farm and from field to field. For pipe tobacco to be good, it is far more important to begin with quality leaf than it is to manufacture a blend with a host of tobaccos, casings, and toppings to help augment the flavor profile. The talent behind pipe tobacco rests just as much in the farmer as it does the blender. It takes far more skill to make a single kind of tobacco work well in a pipe than it does mixing several ingredients together in hopes of making something new. Simplicity is key.
With pipe smoking, and with many other things in life, there is nothing wrong with repeating a cherished experience. For my entire adult life, I’ve been pestered by people who ask “Have you seen this movie?, Have you tried this restaurant? Have you read this book? Have you visited this state or that country?” And they ask it as if they know something that I don’t, and that what they know is better than my own experiences. How annoying it is. I know what I like, and I usually feel no need to chase after the next big thing, the latest fad or craze. My Mixture 965 holds a special place in my rotation because it was the first English blend I fell in love with. Each pipe smoker has this experience with a favorite blend, whatever that blend might be. With each new bowl of 965 I try to repeat that first smoke. Why? Because I like repeating things that do not require or demand change and improvement. There is a certain elegance in getting to know a place, person, or thing over the course of a long period of time. There’s a time for trying something new, such as a new pipe blend, and I enjoy doing that. But most of the time, I prefer the simplicity of the familiar, things that contain no surprise, no change, and give an expected degree of beauty and comfort.